oaring costs, high interest rates and clogged supply chains have buffeted the offshore wind power industry as it tries to expand from Europe to the US east coast.
Add to these another obstacle: increasingly vocal and organised opponents who live or work along the beachfront.
Their campaign threatens to slow down the Biden administration’s push to reach 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030, up from a minimal amount today. They are nowhere more active than in New Jersey, whose own goal of 11GW by 2040 is the most ambitious of any eastern state.
“[We] will do whatever it takes to stop this,” said Paul Kanitra, the mayor of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. “If that means lawsuits, we’ll do lawsuits. If that means we literally need to form a flotilla and go out there and stop it ourselves, we’ll do that as well.”
The opponents raise fears of harm to marine life and fisheries, and ocean views marred by spinning wind turbines. They have formed groups with names such as Protect Our Coast NJ and Save Long Beach Island.
“Most people come here for the ocean. It’s not going to be what it was. It’s going to hurt business,” George Benedict, owner of the White Whale Motel in the town of Barnegat Light, said at a recent rally organised by Save Long Beach Island.
The local pushback comes amid new financial difficulties for offshore wind projects despite subsidies from states and last year’s Inflation Reduction Act federal climate law. Companies are seeking to renegotiate or cancel agreements for nearly half of the 18GW of generating capacity contracted in the US, according to BloombergNEF, a consultancy.
This month, six east coast governors sent a letter to President Joe Biden warning offshore wind projects are “increasingly at risk of failing” due to “extraordinary economic challenges”, urging federal intervention.
“The offshore wind industry in the US is facing a perfect storm of rising costs, permitting hurdles, low returns and project delays,” said Atin Jain, senior wind associate at BloombergNEF.
Last month Danish wind giant Ørsted announced a delay to the start of its Ocean Wind 1 wind project off New Jersey until 2026. The company has also filed and won lawsuits against local governments it alleged were withholding permits and easements without authority. Ørsted, which is developing eight projects on the east coast, said abandoning some due to supply and price pressures was a “real option”.
New Jersey’s utilities regulator approved Ocean Wind 1 in 2019. In that year, 15 per cent of New Jersey residents said they opposed offshore wind projects, according to a poll by Monmouth University.
By August the share was 40 per cent, with the increase almost entirely among Republican voters.
“It’s tense,” said Mike Williams, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank. “We’re starting to build big projects, and that’s made opposition turn up the heat as high as possible.”
Offshore wind power has been cast in an important role for the US decarbonisation effort. States in the north-east have led the charge with aggressive targets and offtake agreements, partly because they have less open space available for land-based wind parks and weaker sun rays than the southern states that are leading in solar installations, such as Texas and Florida.
In New Jersey, offshore wind is expected to support more than 20,000 jobs by 2030, according to a workforce assessment released last year by the state government.
“Offshore wind will give us the ability to transition away from the dirty power plants in the state . . . There is no way that this can be achieved without offshore wind,” said Anjuli Ramos-Busot, head of Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter.
But those kinds of estimates are little comfort to New Jerseyans such as Dan Mears, a 63-year-old fisherman who started work after he graduated from high school.
“It’s going to destroy the commercial fishing industry,” Mears said at a recent anti-wind rally in Barnegat Light, a shore community. “My grandson is three years old. If he wants to get into this profession, I hope it’s going to be there for him.”
No scientific studies have found a link between whale deaths and offshore wind surveying. A two-year peer-reviewed fisheries study sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was “unclear” whether offshore wind development would lead to lost or displaced jobs for fishermen.
“The fishing industry is stuck in a difficult position where it is very clear that they will be impacted by this new industry, but what is unclear is the extent of that or what form that will take,” said Fiona Hogan, lead author of the study and the research director at the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a fishing coalition.
Tristan Grimbert, chief executive of EDF Renewables North America, said the company is facing a “well-orchestrated misinformation campaign” and is in talks with the Biden administration and legislatures over how to progress with its offshore wind project, Atlantic Shores, in New Jersey with Shell.
Protect Our Coast NJ has come under fire from climate advocates for receiving funding from the Delaware-based Caesar Rodney Institute, which has been linked to fossil fuel interests. CRI’s David Stevenson, who served on former president Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team and is now director of energy and environment at the think-tank, leads the American Coalition for Ocean Protection, which helps locals challenge offshore wind projects.
Both Stevenson and Protect Our Coast NJ said that the institute helped collect donations in an account prior to Protect Our Coast NJ’s recognition as a non-profit organisation. One per cent of the CRI’s donations come from oil, according to Stevenson.
“Oil industry giants … are investing billions in offshore wind, and we are opposing them quite effectively,” said Stevenson, who said critical priorities for the institute were to maintain affordable, reliable power and to transition to sources such as nuclear and technologies like carbon capture.
Robin Shaffer, spokesperson for Protect Our Coast NJ, said: “We believe climate change is a real and significant issue … We don’t think that these 1,000-foot wind turbines are the answer.”
The challenges for offshore wind projects come despite new and extended subsidies for the technology included in the IRA, which included $369bn in support for climate and clean energy.
“As it stands right now, the IRA isn’t really benefiting the short-term offshore wind projects,” said David Hardy, chief executive of Ørsted’s Americas arm. One problem is because the US lacks a supply chain for offshore wind, developers cannot obtain bonus tax credits in the IRA for domestic products to offset higher costs.
Elizabeth Klein, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a federal regulator, said the agency uses the best available science and information to “avoid or reduce potential impacts from offshore wind projects”. She said BOEM was “confident” the US will reach its offshore wind targets.
Even as some New Jerseyans are mobilising against offshore wind projects, others are rooting for them. Among them is Gary Stevenson, the mayor of Paulsboro, an oil refinery town on the Delaware river where German manufacturer EEW AOS is building a factory to produce turbine foundations.
“Offshore wind is our lifeline to this town,” said Stevenson, who is not related to David Stevenson. “If we lose this, we’ll be in very, very dire straits.”
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